Despite apparently having no name, the fairy godmother has become a major character in the mythic traditions of the West. With a wave of her wand she rights wrongs and makes the world a better place. The term is now used fairly generally for almost any helpful woman who comes into your life when most needed – as such there are distinct similarities with the guardian angel tradition.
Although the fairy godmother as we know her today is a relatively recent innovation, the tradition goes back a long way. There are possible connections with many different traditions which include the concept of a helpful guardian spirit. In many ways the fairy godmother can be seen as a sanitised version of the white witch with a more attracive costume!
The godmother character certainly hasn’t always been a fairy. Very often she is a mother spirit. At other times she has even been a kindly animal such as an ox or calf.
It has been suggested that the fairy godmother story descends directly from the three Fates of Greek mythology who bestowed gifts – good and ill – on a new-born babe. However the Fates were certainly not always benevolent and could be cruel as well as kind.
When we think of a “fairy godmother” today we usually think of the story of Cinderella and the fairy who waves her wand and transforms a pumpkin into a coach. This story is one of the standards of British pantomime.
This particular story is only one of many. The Cinderella template has been found in many countries. There are over 340 versions known of the same basic plot.
People often credit our modern Cinderella tale – like so many other fairy tales – to the Brothers Grimm and their 19th century collection of folklore. They included a version of Cinderella in 1812. However this is very different from the story we know today. In particular, the Grimm Brothers’ version didn’t have a fairy godmother at all!
In the Grimm Brothers’ version – as in many others – Cinderella is helped not by a fairy but by wild creatures and the spirit of her dead mother. Two white pigeons help Cindrella with her chores then tell her to visit the tree above her mother’s grave where she gets the fine dress for the ball.
The fairy godmother appears to have been introduced in another branch of the Cinderella story by an earlier author, Charles Perrault. His French version (“Cendrillon”) was probably written in the 1690s. This is far more similar to the “modern” version than that of the Brothers Grimm.
Incidentally, the question of Cinderella’s glass slipper causes much disagreement. Many people believe it was the result of a mistranslation: pantoufle de vair (fur slipper) having been mistaken for pantoufle de verre (glass slipper). Others argue that “pantoufle de verre” appears in Perrault’s original text and must have been deliberate.